Hoping to highlight the contributions of Jewish culture to the nation, a determined band of South Floridians is leading a campaign to create an American Jewish History Month.
With backing from Congress and President Bush, their dream appears headed for reality. Every January, schoolchildren throughout Florida study the long, sometimes painful, but always productive Jewish history of their state. An American Jewish history month would expand that cross-cultural experience on a national scale.
Prompted by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution urging the president to proclaim an American Jewish History Month. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., plans to push the same resolution through the Senate.
But only the president can make such a proclamation, and Bush intends to designate what he prefers to call “Jewish Heritage Month” to be celebrated sometime in the spring. That would expand past proclamations of “Jewish Heritage Week,” which last year was in May.
“The president realizes the importance of recognizing American Jewish contributions to this nation,” White House spokesman Blair Jones said. The White House is working closely with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Wasserman Schultz to decide how best to celebrate, including picking a month.
Promoters hope to build momentum for a Jewish equivalent to Black History Month, which is celebrated in February. They see an opportunity to burnish pride in Jewish contributions to American society while also helping non-Jews understand the culture, holidays and history of a small but influential minority.
“Most Americans don’t have much exposure to Jewish people, who make up less than 2 percent of the population,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview. “This would be a chance for kids who do not have contact with Jews to at least know what their contributions and culture are about.”
She and other promoters envision festivals, exhibits and school programs. A curriculum on Jewish history would be provided to schools across the country, much like the one in Florida.
At Lake Worth Community High School, for example, students learn that Jewish settlers came to Florida as early as 1763. Florida Sen. David Levy Yulee, who helped write the state constitution, became the first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate in 1845. And after World War II, a Jewish migration flowed into South Florida, now home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.
Students also discuss their perceptions of Jewish retirees and “snowbirds” who flock to South Florida in the winter.
“We try to get rid of preconceived notions,” said Meryl Preston, a teacher at the school. “We discuss why people talk the way they talk, including some slang words. The message is that it’s OK to be different.”
At Loggers’ Run Middle School in Boca Raton, which has a larger Jewish population than the high school, students are engaged in a reading program with Israeli students over the Internet, while also learning facts about Jewish history.
“If the children are Jewish, they are very proud,” teacher Maureen Marullo said. “Many have come from the North, and they are proud to know that Jewish people played a part in Florida history.”
In Florida, which began celebrating Jewish History Month in 2003, these lessons often are interwoven with Holocaust studies, which schools by law are required to teach. However, promoters of a nationwide celebration would rather stress Jewish history in this country.
“The Holocaust has overshadowed all of this,” said Marcia Zerivitz, director of the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach, one of the leading promoters of Jewish History Month. “It’s such an emotional thing. Most people, even Jews, equate Jews with the Holocaust. American Jewish history has taken a backseat.”
Lessons about anti-Semitism and discrimination inevitably must be included in any study of Jewish history in Florida, the nation and the world.
“This is not to be denied, not forgotten,” Zerivitz said. “But what we are focusing on are the good things, the contributions Jews have made. We want to give young Jews a sense of pride in what our people have accomplished.”